On February 18, 2022, EMU history graduate student Connor K. Ashley was interviewed about his work in the University Archives by FOX 2 Detroit. It was Ashley's first time meeting 91-year-old US Army veteran William “Bill” Volano in person, but he felt like he had known Bill for years.
Bill Volano, a member of the Ypsilanti Rotary Club and longtime resident of Ann Arbor, volunteered for over two decades to record the oral histories of veterans from across Washtenaw County and Michigan as a part of the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress. Volano would eventually donate his decades worth of stories of American veterans to the EMU Archives. Ashley worked for months to digitize the video interviews donated by Volano and in the process, heard Bill’s voice for almost 48 hours in total, but because he was never on camera, Ashley’s first meeting with Volano occurred during the FOX 2 Detroit interview.
“It was a great experience,” said Ashley, “It was a great and commendable effort that Bill was able to get on FOX 2 because he had not been on camera before. His story had not been told and he deserves a lot of credit for volunteering and documenting these stories over the last several decades.”
The story behind Veterans History Project at EMU Archives
Starting in 2000, the United States Congress passed a bill creating the Veterans History Project in order to record the oral histories of veterans from foreign conflicts. Volano was approached by a member of the Ypsilanti Rotary Club to see if he would be willing to interview veterans for the Veteran History Project, which is now a part of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. Volano agreed and reached out to the Library of Congress for some funding for equipment but was rejected. He then reached out to three non-profit organizations for grant money for him to purchase equipment and materials for recording interviews.
From 2000 to the present, Volano has been recording histories of veterans at the Ypsilanti District Library on Michigan Ave and in different people’s homes. In August 2021, Volano donated a collection of 142 mini digital videotapes of veteran oral histories conducted by him and other volunteers, including Eastern Michigan University faculty and students.
The FOX 2 interview gave Ashley the opportunity to talk about some famous people Volano had interviewed, such as EMU graduate and Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kettles. The effort Volano put into documenting Kettles' story of services successfully helped Kettles obtain the Medal of Honor from President Obama in 2016. Volano and his wife were invited to the White House, and President Obama said his name four times, which he regards as a claim to fame.
The week before this interview, Ashley was finally able to visit Volano’s house in Ann Arbor. “I finally did an oral history interview of him. No one has done a history of him, he is always doing this for everyone else. It is an honor to give him the recognition he deserved as part of our collection in the archive as well,” said Ashley. “They are a very fun and welcoming couple, very sprite. Their house is full of framed photos taken around the world, including photos of Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, and beautiful photos taken in Italy and Portugal.”
The cataloging and digitizing process
It is the first project that Ashley worked on as an employee of EMU Archives. His task is to digitalize the materials in real-time. The minimum requirement is 30 minutes, but a lot of them run an hour and a half. Ashley digitized 46 interviews up to now.
“The general process of documenting the interviewed veteran stories is to mail the physical copy of the interview and the paperwork to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. In most cases, they are responsible for digitalizing them. Unfortunately, it does not always happen. Sometimes the tapes don't meet the 30 minutes threshold, so they are not qualified,” said Ashley.
The EMU Archives received 142 interviews in total. The first step includes going onto the Library of Congress website, finding out which ones had already been digitalized, then working on those that had not. If the names and the keywords do not crossover in the search, then Ashley would have to listen to the interview in real-time.
“The interview is all recorded on MiniDV tapes which cannot last for long, and their quality preservation can be easily affected by temperature changes and exposure to light. Fortunately, in most of the tapes we received, the video and audio were both available. Only in some of them did we have to take away the colors. Among 46 interviews, I was able to digitize 42 of them, six of them are deposited in Ypsilanti Historical Society archives, four of those we're able to locate, and only two could not be digitalized,” said Ashley.
Ashley credits Alexis Braun Marks, EMU assistant professor and university archivist, as “the most instrumental person” in the project. “This is only my first project as an employee in the Archives, it is Professor Braun Marks who assists me with the situation and walks me through the project,“ Ashley said.
Ashley’s career development as a historian
Ashley studied political science as an undergraduate at Wayne State University, and he also worked as a campaign manager in the State House of Michigan during the 2020 election. However, towards the end of his graduation, Connor realized that his real passion is political history. Connor switched to the EMU history graduate program, and it led to his employment in the EMU Archives.
“The first work I did in the archive was an internship between the College of Art and Science and Detroit Film for the Detroit Club. It was a 150 hours internship over the summer of 2021. I worked with the entire collection in all 53 boxes. There were six oversized drawers full of documents items,” said Ashley. “Digitizing all of those and creating a website was pretty similar to the process I did for the Veterans History Project. I was fortunate that this experience led me to the offer to work at the EMU Archives.”
Ashley received his technical training last winter from the class GHPR 527 Oral History Techniques, taught by lecturer Matt Jones, who also manages the EMU Archives' Instagram.
The EMU Archives is one of the most open university archives to students.
“It is all about teaching students the importance of preserving documents but also the best use of those documents in their own research,“ Ashley said. There are stations for students for documents storage. Any students who are interested in using any document in the archive collections can schedule an appointment to use those resources.”
In the future, Ashley is thinking about continuing in the Ph.D. program in history, potentially applying to the historic preservation program at EMU, and trying to continue in his career goal of working in the EMU Archives.